What is Kalimba ? - Pawpaw™
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What is Kalimba ?

If you like music and its practice, you should know that there is a wide variety of instruments for different types of music, and that each produces a very particular sound.

You probably know many instruments, such as the guitar, the piano, the trumpet or even the violin. These instruments are very popular, they are found in a wide variety of musical works, and your ear has no trouble identifying them from the first note played.

Yet there are many other, lesser-known, original instruments that produce very beautiful melodies, some of which you may have heard before. There is one in particular, little known to the general Western public but very popular in Africa, and whose practice is accessible to all: the Kalimba.

An ancestral instrument that has been able to endure over time and modernize, an integral part of African musical heritage (and since 2020 inscribed on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity), the Kalimba produces a soft, haunting, and instantly recognizable sound.

But what is the Kalimba ? What are its origins, and how does it work? In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about this ancient instrument.

1. The origins of Kalimba : the Mbira (or thumb piano)

Le Mbira (also known as without, kissange, marimba or even karimba) finds its origins in the African continent, more precisely in Zimbabwe, where this instrument appeared about 3000 years ago.

The history of Mbira is closely linked to that of the Shona people, established for thousands of years in this region of Africa, and who today make up 82% of the population of Zimbabwe.

At the beginning, Mbira had no musical vocation: first used to communicate with warriors and tribal leaders, it was gradually used for other functions, such as attracting rain in times of drought. Gradually, this instrument was used for musical purposes, and became an integral part of traditional Shona music.

This is distinguished by a song accompanied by musical instruments such as the drum and the Mbira, while the rest of the participants dance to the rhythm of the music.

Tichakunda Mbira Group 2014 plays Bangidza "Musha Matare"

But then, what is the relationship between Mbira et Kalimba ?

La Kalimba is simply the name given to this instrument by the ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey, who, in his efforts to make known to the world the vast musical heritage of Africa, created a westernized version of the Mbira which he will call Kalimba in the 1950s. If Hugh Tracey only intervenes in the recent history of the Mbira, it is he who allows the expansion of this instrument and its popularization outside of Africa.

Kalimba 17 keys Pawpaw Butterfly

But by the way, what is the difference between the Mbira traditional and the Kalimba ?

2. Description and use of the Kalimba

When Hugh Tracey decides to create an adaptation of Mbira traditional, it aims to create a simple instrument that can be learned quickly on an international scale, including by new musicians (Kalimba literally translates to “little music” in Shona).

After having created more than a hundred prototypes, using various materials, he finally created in 1954 the Kalimba. This then has 15 keys, each of which corresponds to one of the notes of the diatonic scale (which serves as the basis for Western music: Do, Ré, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si…): much simpler for Europeans, unaccustomed to African agreements, considered then (and until today), as too exotic for Western ears!

It is also quite ironic to note that Hugh Tracey, who spent his life learning, appreciating, collecting and preserving traditional African music, ended up inventing and distributing globally a custom-made instrument for Western audiences.

📐 Let's see now what a Kalimba, and how does it work.

La Kalimba is a musical instrument whose operation is extremely simple, which makes it the ideal instrument for novice musicians.
It is first of all made up of a soundboard (1), generally created from kiaat wood which serves as a support for the Keys (2), and makes it possible to propagate the vibrations of these, thanks to the resonator (3). If the first model created by Hugh Tracey had 15 Keys, most kalimba today have between 5 and 21 Keys.

At Pawpaw, we offer Kalimba 17 and 21 Keys, quality, low price, with everything you need to maintain, walk around and learn your instrument.

Between the reeds and the soundboard, there are 2 bridges (4 and 5), used as a support for the reeds. These make it possible to transmit the vibrations of the Keys, which are themselves firmly fixed by a pressure bar (6). This bar, as its name suggests, will exert pressure on the reeds which will generate a tension, necessary for the production of a sound when the musician presses on the reeds of the Kalimba.

Some models of kalimba, like the ones we offer, also have a sound box (3), which allows you to increase the volume and make the sound fuller.

💬But if all the Keys are similar and constructed the same, how come each produces a different sound?

Quite simply according to their length: the sound produced is higher when the Keys are shorter, and lower when they are longer. Thus, in a kalimba, the root note will be played by the largest Key, and it will also be the lowest possible pitch you can play.

The following Keys are therefore progressively shorter, and they alternate from right to left starting from the fundamental note, as you can see in this diagram:



3. Why play Kalimba ?

La Kalimba has several advantages that make it the ideal instrument for many apprentice musicians.

1. First, the Kalimba is small, light, easy to carry, inexpensive and terribly practical. It is an instrument whose learning is extremely simplified, in comparison with other more traditional instruments, which makes it the ideal instrument to learn for beginners: a few minutes after taking control of your first Kalimba, you'll be able to play a few notes and begin to understand how to create a melody.

With only one hour of practice per day, in less than a month you will be able to play many songs, even the most difficult ones.

Indeed, it is relatively easy to play fairly complex music with a kalimba ; the way the notes are arranged not only helps you to play melodic lines, but also facilitates the accompaniment of these with chords or arpeggios.

🧡🙊Before continuing. Would you like to learn more?

At Pawpaw, to facilitate your learning, we have also provided you with a list of tablatures, adapted to all levels, in order to allow you to progress at your own pace. 

Subscribe for free to our newsletters to receive several hundred tablatures and sheet music at Kalimba! (at the end of the page)



2. The second reason for which to learn the Kalimba is the beauty of the sound produced by this small instrument: a unique sound, which will inspire you to play unique music. Just look at the names of the great artists who have used the Kalimba in their songs to realize the beauty and versatility of the sound produced by the Kalimba :

  • David Bowie in “Space Oddity”
  • Phil Collins, in “Long Long Way to Go”
  • Maurice white, founder of the group “Earth, Wind and Fire”

Finally, and this is undoubtedly one of the most important points, the Kalimba is an excellent tool for music therapy. It produces a calming sound, similar to that of a music box, perfect for relaxation and stress reduction.


Music therapy - Meditation

If music therapists use the Kalimba in the treatment of people with physical disabilities, hearing impairments and mental problems ranging from stress to depression, Kalimba can also be of great help for the problems that everyone encounters on a daily basis.

From his practice, using small thumb movements, Kalimba is ideal for small physical problems such as arthritis or mobility problems. In addition, the vibrations produced by the Kalimba can relax different muscle groups, and these same vibrations allow people who are deaf and hard of hearing to experience music through their sense of touch.

To relieve stress or alleviate depression, the practice of Kalimba also proves to be a very effective therapeutic tool. The sound created by the Kalimba is light, sweet, bewitching, and positively influences mood and promotes relaxation.


You're not convinced yet ?

Just listen to this improvisation Kalimba, and you'll have no trouble creating melodies as easily and sounding as crystal-clear as a Pawpaw :


There you go, now you know all about the Kalimba.

If this instrument seems exotic, it is nonetheless extremely practical and easy to learn. With its beautiful sounds and its simplified mode of operation, it is tending to become more popular in Europe and will allow you to play the songs of your favorite artists, while offering you a deserved moment of relaxation.

If you liked the sound of the Kalimba and you are looking for an instrument of excellent quality and at an affordable price, look more bad in this page: Kalimbas from 17 to 21 Keys, available in different colors, you will undoubtedly find the Kalimba that suits you.

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